This is the third in a Placemaking Profile series in which we will share short conversations we’ve had with urban innovators – from those who are actively building places that foster social inclusion to those who listen, engage, and tell stories from the communities.
For more information about placemaking, please click here.
Rony Al Jalkh: Placemaking for Peacemaking
As part of a panel discussion on strategies to go beyond Habitat III at the Placemaking Leadership Forum (Vancouver, BC. September 14-16, 2016), Rony Al Jalkh shared his work on Placemaking for Peacemaking, a two-way process for intervening, activating and improving public spaces as a way to promote inclusion and interaction in socially fragmented cities, particularly with immigrant and refugee communities.
We had the chance to chat with Rony before his session to get a glimpse on his approach to placemaking and ways to promote civic engagement in marginalized neighbourhoods.
What is placemaking for you?
To me, it’s about making place with the people, for the people. And it’s for all the people. I started working in Beirut. The project was about promoting placemaking because it’s not something known in Lebanon. We don’t have the culture of public spaces and we don’t have the culture of a participatory approach. In Lebanon we have a proverb that says “kill two birds with one stone.” This means that I want to make placemaking for two reasons: I want to tell people that they have the right to have public spaces and to claim them. But also I want to tell municipalities that people must participate in these projects.
Who would be the mediator in this process of placemaking for peacemaking?
We have to find someone who can be the link between community and municipalities. Someone who can play this role, someone who is dynamic and a catalyst. I believe universities can help. University students are young, dynamic, open and capable to play the linking role between the community and municipal authorities.
What has been your experience working with university students as mediators?
I started by providing workshops at universities. I implemented a pilot project at the American University of Beirut. I took placemaking because to me it’s a flexible process, we can always adapt it to local contexts. So I prepared a syllabus and I taught these courses for free. I wanted to test what I prepared to connect students to the community. Timing was good because we had municipal elections in Lebanon and the municipality was open to new ideas.
What challenges did you experience working on this project?
It was not easy because the students have never been to these communities. The students came from middle- to upper-income Lebanese families. I focused my work on marginalised neighbourhoods, mostly in the suburbs. Some of these neighbourhoods had immigrant populations (predominantly from Syria). The cultural shock experienced by students helped us screen their level of commitment to the project.
How did you bring students closer to the reality of residents in marginalized communities?
I included anything related to communications as part of the syllabus of the courses that I organized. The students often did not speak Arabic because they came from upper class families.
We also implemented a listening process among students. We explained to them how to ask questions in Arabic and introduced them to the cultural reality of these communities. For instance, we explained to students that it’s not enough to speak the language, they need to understand the slang and be sensitive to these nuances so that they can come closer to their reality. We worked a lot on communication skills. We also helped students learn how to negotiate the design and co-creation process with the community and told them that every opinion counts. I gave them an example. I said “You are architects. When you graduate you will build a house for your clients. So you will prepare the design and you will have to negotiate with your clients the number of floors. For public spaces the client is the people. You cannot build public spaces without negotiation. The community is your client. You must make something that is feasible, tangible and accessible for everyone.”
What was the scale of this project?
During three months we worked on 21 designs prepared by 21 students for different locations in Beirut. We are talking about small spaces because publicly accessible land is scarce in Lebanon. These are little land pockets where we could plant a tree to make people come. We worked under the idea that public spaces must remain open anytime and for everyone.
How can we use placemaking to bring peace in fragmented communities?
Placemaking is about connecting people in a space. And peacemaking is also about connecting people to each other. And for me peacemaking cannot succeed if it is not in a concrete place. It means we have to bring people together but how, where? So, the place should be a tool to bring peace. Placemaking for peacemaking is an approach, they reinforce each other. Placemaking is a participative approach. When you let people participate, the participation will bring trust and when you build trust you can have peace. So if I work with you, we will have to trust each other. If we make peace together, we will be more encouraged to work together.
But how do you engage people to work together?
Trust. In Beirut we learned that when we co-create neighbourhoods you don’t bring contractors, you work with the community. I asked students to identify skilled people within the community: carpenters, construction workers, plumbers, and so on. We invited students to work together with these people and friendships were made. These interactions facilitated teamwork.
While working with Syrian communities in Beirut, I explained to them that if they wish to be accepted they need to contribute to city co-creation. We saw Syrian and Lebanese residents working together in creating public spaces. I’m not saying this is magic but if the public space is a place where we all wish to come, we could begin by building peace through the public space. If we have playgrounds for Lebanese and Syrian children we can facilitate interaction and parents might begin talking to each other.
Once I worked on a tree-planting project in a marginalized neighbourhood in Beirut. We designed the streets and we told residents “This is your tree and it’s up to you to take care of it. Tomorrow we will plant it, please be ready to help us.” It was the residents and not volunteers who were involved. Ten years later, I observed that trees grew and provided shade to residents. Working with communities takes time and requires patience. Trees, like communities, do not grow up in one day, they are the result of patience.
Rony will be joining us as part of The City as a Commons, a series of conversations in Canada with international innovators who are advancing transformative change in participatory city building and thinking. He will be giving talks open to the public (RSVP required) in Montreal on March 20 and 24; and in Toronto on March 27.
About Rony Al Jalkh
With nearly 16 years of experience working with UN-Habitat and other international organizations, Rony has extensive knowledge managing and monitoring projects relating to governance, civil society and working with the public sector. As an activist and practitioner of Placemaking, he provides lectures and workshops throughout Lebanon and abroad. As a senior fellow at the Project for Public Spaces, Rony is currently leading research on “Placemaking for Peacemaking” with the objective of creating placemaking resources and tools to promote urban equity and inclusion.